Thirsty Ear Festival, June 10-12 | - May 25, 2011

Annual Thirsty Ear Music Festival Gets A Makeover

Santa Fe is not a community that embraces change. The irony bubble that hovers over the city “different” as the artistic hub between the east and west coasts grows with every gentrifying step. Still, the art and underpinning culture in Santa Fe is generally spirited and restless, and every so often one of Santa Fe’s key players in the local arts community ditches the game plan and changes course. The results may be mixed but they signal a common expectancy among artistic communities: the platform that presents the art should be as ambitious as the art itself, and no one knows this better than Mike Koster

For twelve years, the Thirsty Ear Festival, which Koster organizes and produces, has enjoyed a special place in the Santa Fe music community. Although the Santa Fe Opera, Chamber Music Festival and the Santa Fe Bluegrass and Old Time Music Festival have existed for decades, the Thirsty Ear Festival manages to capture the most diverse demographic swath among its audiences.  

Much of the Festival’s character is defined by the musical acts that have graced the stage in the same way a tributary stream defines a river. Roots music, and its incalculable derivations, feed into an ethereal pool known as Americana. The underlying sound is a decidedly folk sound: spare orchestral arrangements that meet rhythm and blues; Creole or Cajun or Gospel elbow waltzes and harmonies that twist into the redemptive soul of honky-tonk and Texas Swing. Ultimately, Americana is both traditional and worldly in scope.         

The Thirsty Ear Festival is by all accounts a success. Historically, is has been three-day music festival produced at the Eaves Movie Ranch with main stage acts rotating steadily, while “tweener” acts play an indoor stage between the main sets—there’s beer, food, distractions for the kids and of course the Biblical dust, sun, wind and rain that can get really old…really fast. And there is of course a sense of predictability that has come to inform the festival.

When the festival debuted in 1999 and the line-up included T-Model Ford and the Kenny Brown Band; it set the tone for the festival with an edge and patina of undistilled blues purity. And although the festival has hosted such luminaries as Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and Gov’t Mule in recent years, the line-up has lost a sense of young love/ sell the house/ we’re moving to Paris/ let’s grow some weed/ urgency.  Well, at least until now.

“I wanted to work with other people and inject their enthusiasm into it,” Koster says on the phone when referring to Tim Franke a local music promoter who helped him rip the guts out of the Festival by moving it in town and spreading it over three venues over three days and nights. The pair has previous worked together to produce recent gigs by JT and the Clouds and the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars. “Tim has played a big part of this year’s festival. My crowd has always been over thirty and his crowd is under thirty…we’re really trying hard to get a cross section of audience.” Koster says.

The basis of much of the Festival’s draw is the location. Eaves Movie Ranch is a charming setting for the Festival. The western movie set adds an intimate character to the music unlike typical open-field festivals. Unfortunately, the Festival is at the mercy of the elements and its own limitations. It’s a relatively small and uncovered space awash in merciless dust. One of the first decisions was to split the venue into three locations: The Lensic Theater, Corazon Nightclub and the Santa Fe Brewing Company.  Next came the music…

“The sound is in the roots camp, but it’s definitely stretching the boundaries, which is what I want,” says Koster about the changes in this year’s line up. Splitting venues is risk, but a well-calculated move. The Festival will undoubtedly lose some of its nuanced charm, but will curate the music to fit the space. Indie bands like Hamel on Trial and Calexico balance with Dwayne Dopsie & The Zydeco Hellraisers and Cedric Burnside Project at Corazon and the Brewing Company respectively, while headliner Shawn Colvin performs at the Lensic. The new format maximizes the assets for musical performance in Santa Fe. Rather than producing an entire performance on one platform, the musical experience changes and will ultimately add richness by inviting the atmosphere of the venue to be part of the show.  Besides, there is some music that sounds better with a drink and sweaty dance floor, while other music is best experienced in the comfort of a beautiful theater. 

The Lensic and Corazon will be the primary hosts for evening shows, while the Santa Fe Brewing Company will be the Festival’s primary gathering spot and will have most of the things we have come to expect from the Festival. The familiar “tweener” sets will perform on the indoor stage, while the headliners perform on the outdoor patio; the Kids Corral will be in full swing with arts and crafts; beer tastings and food and beverage offerings courtesy of the Brewing Company will be available too. The Festival’s last day will be the “Locals Only-Community Day” and will feature a full line-up of regional band favorites such as Le Chat Lunatique and Felix y Los Gatos.

“I’m going to reserve the right to tweak it. I don’t want to get bored and to be honest with you with the old format I was getting bored. I want to grow with this thing, not get stale with it. This is our twelfth year and it was just time to change,” Koster says. Of course, there will be the assorted punditry that will make sport of the Festival changes, but it will undoubtedly be a spirited dialogue. In a perfect world, the “new” Thirsty Ear Festival would set the blueprint for other performing arts organizations and its example begs for us to ask…what would we want to change if not the very things that enlighten our community?